Ask TON: How to Build Narrative in Explanatory Stories



Welcome back for another installment of Ask TON. This time, we’re talking about how to turn your story’s vegetables into a juicy, tasty stew.

You have an assignment to cover new developments in a complicated field. You’ve been following it for a while, so you know the basics and the main players. You know you have to include summaries of some results, and enough background (your vegetables) to give readers a good overview. But you still want your story to be deliciously compelling, not just chock-full of data.

So what are the steps you can take to bring more narrative to a summary-type story? For stories that are mostly explanatory, what kinds of questions do you ask your sources in order to create narrative?

Apoorva Mandavilli, science journalist and director of

If there are people involved, which of course there always are, you can find narrative. Was the finding a surprise? Did the researchers set out to find something and find something else? Did they have to scramble to scoop another lab? Did they only succeed after dozens of repeated tries at some obscure technique?

There is tension to be found in almost any work. Often, all it takes is an extra 10 to 15 minutes on the phone with the researchers, asking them questions that might reveal more than their paper. Scientists sometimes have no idea that the drama in their lives or work is interesting to anyone else. Once they know that, they’re usually happy and excited to share it.

Katherine Harmon Courage, freelance journalist and contributing editor for Scientific American:

Many short science stories are fantastic just as bites of news and context. But many more would benefit, if not from full-on structured story narratives, at least from pinches and dashes of narrative elements. For the big, spacious projects that come once in a blue moon for most of us (books, in-depth features), the obvious answer is to get your butt out the door. Just by getting to the scene—whether that is a beach or a lab bench—for interviews, it becomes approximately three million times easier to introduce narrative elements into a story. You have setting (and all the sensory impressions that offers), and you have a much better sense of your character(s) than you would from a phone interview.

But of course most of the time most of us are crunching through deadlines at our desks. And even when interviewing someone in person on-site, you usually aren’t there for the discovery let alone the “whole story.” The best trick to getting more narrative elements is one I learned from my MU journalism professor Jacqui Banaszynski several years ago: Turn your sources into the storytellers. Maybe that’s cheating a little. But it can work. Even with scientists.

Once you’ve gotten through the science essentials and warmed up your interlocutor in the process, help take them back to the scene with questions about what steps they took, how they were feeling, what x, y, or z smelled like, heck, how many cups of coffee they stayed up drinking while crunching the data over and over in disbelief. If you can locate a source of conflict or tension in the story (a race-for-a-discovery trope, etc.), all the better. If you (and your source) are up for it, dig up that old, tedious, annoying, “And then what?” and use it until they hang up on you.* (Some day, hopefully, I’ll get around to putting this into practice myself.) By that time you should have enlivening and telling details to sprinkle into your story, and perhaps even enough on which to structure it.

*Or maybe just until you sense they want to hang up on you.

Dan Ferber, journalist and author; senior editor, Discover:

By the time researchers have results to talk about, the story has been playing out for a while. To bring narrative elements into straightforward news coverage or analysis, I’d first want to know the broad outline of the story, in human terms. A scientist has set out to answer a question, solve a problem, test a new drug, develop a new technology—and they’ve succeeded to some degree.

This raises questions. What in the scientist’s background drew them to this particular question, this problem? You’ll probably use their backstory sparingly, but it will give you good context and often some interesting narrative tidbits. Where did they get the idea to take this particular experimental approach? Nothing worth doing comes without some hurdles—dead ends, experiments that didn’t work, resistance from colleagues. I like to ask about the biggest hurdles they had to overcome. Was there some sort of epiphany, an aha moment, along the way? Maybe they’d been grinding away at a problem, tried a different experimental approach, and it was a game changer. Maybe a chance meeting led them down a new path. These sorts of epiphanies and breakthroughs are useful for narrative.

At one or two key points in the action, you may want to reconstruct a scene with some atmospherics, action, dialogue. Even if you don’t have much room, you can still ground the story with little touches of action and visual detail if you’ve asked the right questions. The journal article can sometimes offer clues about what questions to ask. Finally, ask about next steps, which lets you finish your story looking toward the future.

Kat McGowan, science writer and contributing editor, Discover:

This is about that part of a feature that pauses, breaks off from the main narrative and provides the background and “this is how we got here” section of the story. Often that’s the section that comes right after the lede and the billboard, although in a really long feature there might be several sections like that in different places in the story.

Ideally, this is a natural part of the narrative, so that it can be told through the perspective of the characters who are the focus of the feature. So, for example, a classic science-journalism narrative might introduce, in the lede, a scientist in the process of making a surprising or counterintuitive or unexpected/inconvenient discovery. Or it might set up two antagonists who totally disagree. The natural next question is, how did we get here?

The next section answers that question from the perspective of your characters. To get the best answers, I usually ask sources questions like these: What got you interested in this? What sucked you into this question? When was the first time you knew this was something you had to figure out? What was conventional wisdom at the time you started looking into this, and what was the rub or the conflict or the sneaking suspicion for you? What didn’t quite add up about the explanations you heard?

Then you follow your character’s own enlightenment chronologically up to the present moment, as discoveries and new ideas advance knowledge (or maybe, from your character’s point of view, go more and more astray). That’s an easy way to narrativize your piece and provide a structure, so that it feels like a story rather than just a bag of loose facts. Moving the reader through the same thought process that the scientists have gone through lets the reader see why the question is important and why it now has the shape it does—what’s at stake. It brings readers closer to the action by letting them see the problem or idea through scientists’ eyes.

If that’s not possible, an idea-based chronology would be my fallback: that is, rather than summarizing the current state of affairs, tracing how the field has transitioned from one idea to the next, without relying on one character. But the same structure applies: showing how one question leads to the next.

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